Retirement muddies future of school nutrition standards

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 3, 2015 - The chairman of the House committee that oversees child nutrition programs is retiring from Congress next year, raising questions about prospects for reauthorizing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. 

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The law, which authorized the Agriculture Department to raise the nutrition standards for school meals and regulate what is sold in school vending machines, expires Sept. 30. 

Minnesota Republican John Kline, who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, announced Thursday on his Facebook page that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2016. Both on his Facebook page and in a statement on the committee web site, he said he looked forward to passing legislation replacing the No Child Left Behind law, which forced schools to meet higher education standards, but he didn't directly mention the nutrition issue. 

“Whether it's replacing No Child Left Behind, holding the Obama administration accountable for its harmful policies, or strengthening higher education, there is a lot of work to do over the next 16 months. I remain humbled by the opportunity to lead the committee, and I intend to finish strong and to continue delivering common sense reforms America's students, parents, workers, and employers deserve,” he said. 

Kline has held hearings on the nutrition issue but has yet to schedule a markup for a new bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue in that chamber, is scheduled to mark up its bill Sept. 17. 

The impact of Kline's retirement and lame-duck status will depend on how long the issue lingers, said Margo Wootan, a nutrition policy specialist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

If a bill is passed this year, his retirement “likely won't have any effect.  If there is an extension that pushes it into the next Congress, it could make a difference,” she said. 

Kline “seems to prefer a state and local approach to school nutrition, despite the fact that states and localities provide less than 10% of the funding for school meals,” she said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Agri-Pulse in an interview this week that he's “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will reach agreement on a new child nutrition law. “I think that there is an opportunity here, given the flexibility that we've shown in the past, to find common ground in terms of the standards to make sure that we don't take a step back, that we continue to make a commitment to our children and their health and their future,” he said.

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